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Things are heating up fast. And no, we’re not talking about Montana’s fire season, though that, too, came on fast and furious in the last week. We’re talking about the 2006 congressional races, which officially took off when the Montana Democratic Party launched a TV ad Monday criticizing Republican Sen. Conrad Burns for his dealings with “notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now under federal investigation.” The ad cited $136,000 that Burns received from Abramoff, who’s facing criminal and congressional investigations over his representation of Midwest American Indian tribes, and linked it to Burns’ work on steering a $3 million grant to one of Abramoff’s clients.

Republicans quickly launched a counterattack, demanding the ad be pulled and saying it was inaccurate. On Tuesday, the president of a Billings TV station asked the Montana Democratic Party to change the ad, since the money came not just from Abramoff but from Abramoff’s clients. By the end of the news cycle Tuesday, the Dems had agreed to change two words in their ad, though they held firm to the thrust of the message.

Though the details are interesting themselves, what’s more important is that hardball ads and subsequent outcries about “mudslinging” have revved up more than 15 months before the election. If this says anything, and we’re pretty sure it does, we’re in for a long, messy race. The Republican ad blitz hasn’t even begun, but watch out once it does. Four Democrats have so far announced plans to run against Burns: state Auditor John Morrison, state Senate President Jon Tester, former state Rep. Paul Richards and Bozeman businessman Clint Wilkes.

Burns has said he hopes to raise a whopping $10 million for this race—that’s $5 million more than his seat cost him last time around. And he’ll likely see a boost in the coffers when Vice President Dick Cheney shows up for an Aug. 15 fund-raiser in Billings. Luncheon plates will run supporters $125 and a photo-op reception costs $1,000, according to an announcement sent out by the state GOP. Tester, for his part, has famously recruited Pearl Jam to play a benefit concert in Missoula Aug. 29 at $46 a head. That kind of money promises a deluge of ads to come.

The Senate race isn’t the only bit of politics to ratchet up recently. Even the airwaves became more partisan on Aug. 3, when Western Montana tuned into new radio station KKNS-FM 105.9, a progressive talk and news station offering a counterpoint to long-established conservative talk radio. Now, if you just can’t get enough political warfare locally, you can tune into Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken at the same time and listen until your head explodes.

Buckle in for a long season, ’cause there’s a truckload of spin headed our way.

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